Sunday, 15 May 2011

In search of Jane Austen at Stoneleigh Abbey

Readers may know that I'm a bit of a Jane Austen fan.

There are two previous postings about her 1) About searching for Jane Austen in Lyme Regis, here. and the slightly odd story of her aunt here. Her aunt features in the Stoneleigh story below.

Above is Stoneleigh Abbey. The biographical books about Jane Austen and her family refer to Stoneleigh and how she and her immediate family rushed here by carriage to lay claim to an inheritance. The Abbey is on my doorstep but I've never visited it before, which is an oversight as I was able to glean much information, as well as see and touch some of the things that Jane Austen saw and which inspired some of her writings.

Entrance is £7, and you will need to go on either a history tour or a 1 hour Jane Austen tour, as there is no other way to see the house. However, it's truly truly worth the experience if you're the least bit of a fan.

(right -  the 14th century gatehouse, now the ticket office.)

There are extensive grounds which you can wander around, but if you're coming a long way, you might like to combine your day with a visit to nearby Kenilworth Castle, which is also a half day visit. There's a small restaurant and shop in the Orangery. (left)

In August 1806, Jane Austen, her mother and sister Cassandra, came to the Abbey for a few weeks. Although they only visited once, many of their memories have surfaced in Jane's books.

Why they came to Stoneleigh

When Jane's parents retired, they went to live in Bath on a pension of nearly £600 per year. When her parents told Jane they were moving to Bath, the shock made her faint. She was very happy where she was and she was known to have disliked Bath.

In 1805, her father came down to breakfast one morning, claiming that he felt a bit ill. He went upstairs and shortly afterwards died, leaving a widow and two unmarried daughters without the £600 pension.

Jane's mother had £120 a year from various investments, and Cassandra had £50 a year inherited from her fiance who had died from Yellow Fever. Jane had nothing. She was then unpublished and had no income. Mrs Austen's sons (except Charles) banded together to give the ladies an extra £50 each per year, but even so, they were forced to move from lodging house to lodging house in Bath, moving steadily down the social scale.

I was drawn to this fast moving water, and later heard from the tour guide, that it was one of Jane's favourite places whilst she visited.
Looking back from above to the Abbey
In the end, Frank, one of Jane's favourite brothers, asked them to live with him and his wife Mary in Southampton.

In July 1806 they closed the door on their Bath residence , which was an odd coincidence, as it's the same day that Mary Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey died. The Will of Mary's brother who orginally inherited the property but who was declared insane, took precedent and it stated that the property should go .............

"unto the first and nearest of his kindred being male and of his blood and name, that should be alive at the time."

There were 3 contenders, and one of them, the Rev Thomas Leigh, bustled himself and Jane's family in great haste by carriage and horseback to the house to lay claim to it. There ensued a legal battle for ownership with the Rev Thomas Leigh trying to ensure that provision be made for the hard-up ladies.

Although £2,000 was agreed to be at their disposal it never materialised from that side of the family. Hence, we all think, leading to the awful Mrs John Dashwood at the start of Sense and Sensibility, keeping her money to herself and seeing her family go off to live with the help of distant relations elsewhere. Family history shows this to be a caricature of Mrs Jane Leigh Perrot, the same lady as the one who spent time in gaol (link at beginning of this posting) No wonder Jane didn't like her.

(right - tour guide in costume, who was very informative)

No photos are allowed inside the Abbey, but I was able to get some views from postcards on sale in the shop.
This view on the left, is similar to the one Jane had from the window where she wrote her letters and ate breakfast of tea, chocolate coffee, pound cake, fruit cake, and in her mothers' case, dry toast. Her mother was a hypochondriac, and I wonder if elements of the valitudinarian father in Emma were based on her.

This sunny side of the property faced south over the River Avon, to parkland landscaped by Humphrey Repton in 1809.

There are many references to Repton in Mansfield Park, including proposed improvements to Mr Rushworth's estate (Maria's husband) Many of the descriptions of the Rushworth Estate, and of travelling to it, are mirrored in Stoneleigh Abbey and it's surrounding grounds.

Right, is a small bridge/pier that we found in the grounds. It looks back along the River Avon towards the house.

The Interior

This bedroom was done up in this fashion for a visit by Queen Victoria, but when Jane visited, it was the breakfast room. The windows overlook the Severn which flows through the parkland, although I understand that at the time, there was a large wall enclosing a farmyard right next to the house.

The Austen ladies used this room for writing their many letters.

This is the private chapel.  In Mansfield Park the description given by Mrs Rushworth to her visitors, describes this room exactly, The photo is taken from the family balcony looking down to where the servants etc would have sat.

The pews are very low so that the wood surround is almost at chin height; apparently very Georgian. Unfortunately they are quite rare and at the time of Colin Firth's interpretation of Mr Darcy, these were undergoing restoration, or they would probably have been part of the film set.

Here's the balcony which looks down onto the pews.  The ceiling is a rather magnificent example of plasterwork.

 Right. The Library, although at the time of Jane's visit this was a large bedroom with dressing chamber behind the clock.

Main staircase, showing more plasterwork. All the portraits on show are Jane's distant relatives.

Three tour guides in costume.This is the room that Jane's mother said they all disliked because it was gloomy. The dark wood panelling and red velvet upholstery are very dark, but with a dark wooden floor as well, minus the cream carpet, and with just candles for light, it would be very forbidding.

However, below is the Entrance Hall. This is at the top of a large flight of stone stairs. Imagine how delighted they must have been to have seen this on first entering the house. You'd be a bit excited I think!

Finally I'd like to leave you with a small but true story. Most of the portraits we were shown were of Jane's family going back several generations. It gave you a feel for family features and a glimpse of what life was like for her.

She certainly knew all the history of the characters, and many of them surfaced, disguised, in Jane's books. For example, there was a portrait of a formidable woman in the dining room. She was seated, but looked tall. She was slender, dark haired, and with a large nose.

She had two daughters, but like to hold the purse strings very firmly. She wanted her daughters to marry well, but was a bit of a snob and prejudiced against many of their admirers. Her first daughter married well, but the second fell in love with a Captain Wentworth who was deemed unsuitable, as he was poor. However the daughter married him in secret, and immediately went back home so that no one knew except her sister. Captain Wentworth went to sea and made his fortune. They didn't see each other again until his return.

The mother sent various suiters to her daughter but couldn't understand why she didn't want to marry any of them.

On Captain Wentworth's return to England he was invited to dine as he had made a name for himself and had become a hero, and made such an impression on the old lady, that she declared that had her daughter been able to catch such a man she would be very well satisfied. The truth then came out, and all was well in the end.  Shades of Persuasion?

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